Cades Cove is one of those places that is loved to death. This fertile valley, one of the most scenic spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, attracts 2.5 million visitors a year.
They come for the quiet beauty, the sense of history, and the wildlife. In spite of the frequent crowds and traffic, the Cove is a powerful experience.
You'll get a real taste of what 19th century pioneer life was like in this valley of well-maintained pastureland, bordered by forest and mountains -- much as the settlers would have kept it. Cades Cove was first settled in 1821, and you can explore many restored and preserved buildings, including several homesteads and churches.
At the Cable Mill area, you'll find a Visitor Center, a working water-powered grist mill (operates through spring and fall), a cantilever barn and other historic structures. The Forest Service offers seasonal programs and walking tours here.
Wildlife is abundant in the Cove, especially whitetail deer, which can usually be spotted mornings and evenings. They're not particularly afraid of humans, and you should be careful as you drive, since they've been known to suddenly bound across the road.
The park's iconic black bears are especially popular with visitors. Just remember to keep your distance. You might also see wild turkeys, though you're not likely to see the playful river otters, more's the pity.
Also found in the area are beavers, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, and some 200 species of birds. You're more likely to spot wildlife here than in any other area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Abrams Creek runs through the valley, and one of the more popular hikes in the area is the trail to Abrams Falls, which drops some 20 feet into a deep pool. It's a moderate 5 mile round trip. There's also an extensive system of hiking and horseback riding trails, and backcountry campsites are available.
You can rent a horse at the Cades Cove Riding Stables from the end of March to the first of November. Or explore the Cove on a hayride, which leaves from the stables from April through October.
Primitive campsites are available at the Cades Cove Campground, which also features a camp store. Eight full-service campgrounds are located in Townsend, seven miles from the Cove. Townsend has a variety of lodging options, including hotels, bed and breakfast inns, and vacation rentals.
The National Park Service provides directions to the park, and maps which you can download.
The Cove is accessible via an 11 mile one-way loop road, located at the end of Laurel Creek Road. Along the loop road, you'll find many historic structures, some of which can be seen from your car, while others require a short walk. The Cable Mill Visitor Center is about halfway around the loop.
The loop road is open from sunrise to sunset year round, but it's closed to motorized traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 am from around May through September. If you want to bicycle or hike around the loop road without breathing in a lot of auto exhaust, that's the time to go. As a bonus, you're more likely to spot some wildlife in those quiet morning hours.
At the entrance to the loop road, you can pick up the park newspaper and an auto tour booklet. Once you're on the loop, expect to spend a couple of hours at least, and expect traffic to move slowly and even stop at times. People will often stop and gawk when they spot a bear or a whitetail deer, and who can blame them? Especially if the deer happen to be bounding across the road!